Recently, a street woman by the name of Rebecca Smith, aged 61, died in New York. She froze to death inside the home she had constructed for herself out of a cardboard box. She preferred it, she said, to any other home. It was there that she lived and there she boiled her eggs in water from melted snow and it was there that shedied. Policy killed her.
We have the word of her daughter that Mrs. Smith was once beautiful. At the end, that was hardly the case. She was dressed in layers of clothes and if she was like many street people, she smelled bad. The combination of the odor and the dirt must have made her ugly beyond belief and the words that came from her mouth made no sense. She said over and over again that she did not want to leave her home on the street.
In a sense, a neighborhood and a city watched Rebecca Smith die. Lots of people knew what was happening. Her neighbors knew. And the police. The Red Cross knew because it notified the city and the city dispatched a social worker and, later, a psychiatrist. He said Rebecca Smith was schizophrenic but the poor woman died before the courts could order her into an institution. She must have been very, very cold.
But in a larger sense, the nation watched, too. It goes without saying (mostly because no one wants to say it) that among the things that happen when budgets are cut is that people die. They do not die because anyone wants them to, they simply die because a service that once existed no longer does. This is what happens when you cut fire services or police services. We all recognize that and so we ought to recognize, too, that this is what happens when you cut social services. People like Rebecca Smith die. You can count on it.
Sure, there are other factors. You can take the circumstances of Rebecca Smith's death and convene a seminar on public policy. You can debate once again and ad nauseam the wisdom of deinstitutionalization. Mrs. Smith, it turns out, was in and out of institutions most of her life. The last psychiatrist she saw was not the first she had seen nor was that doctor the first to diagnose her condition as schizophrenic.
And we can debate the conflict between the right people have to be a bit crazy and their right to be protected from themselves. It seems Rebecca Smith fell through some crack between the concern for her health and the concern for her civil liberties. You cannot, after all, just throw nets over people willy-nilly and take them away to institutions. People have a right to be crazy.
But really what happened to Mrs. Smith was predictable. It was bound to happen, virtually assured when the country decided that it would spend less money on social service programs and more money on other things--defense, for instance. What Mrs. Smith represented was something like a shrug of the shoulders, a national feeling that enough was not only more than enough, but too expensive as well.
No one could possibly believe that a person could freeze to death on the street by accident. It was not an accident. It was policy. The decision was made somewhere that it would take too much money to constantly canvass the city, any city, for street people, to take their pulse and look them in the eye and decide which ones just had to go to the hospital right away and which ones were in no danger. After all, the tragedy is not that no one knew about Mrs. Smith. The tragedy is that everyone knew.
Rebecca Smith died one day, made the front page of the New York Times the next and has barely been mentioned since. As far as we know, no one is down at City Hall, pounding on the door, demanding to know how it is that a woman, a poor, crazy, pathetic women, is allowed to freeze to death in a nation that sends rockets into space to take pictures of distant planets. Her death is accepted. We are told that these things happen.
And sometimes, I suppose, they do. But when they happen because of indifference or because of selfishness it is no accident--something out of our hands. Rebecca Smith, for instance, died after a weekend when she was not visited by a social worker. She was fine on Friday, but Saturday and Sunday were a different matter. The cause of death was hypothermia.
The reason was cold cash.